Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

EUROPE: ‘Slow’ Over Rights for Roma

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jan 18 2008 (IPS) - European Union officials were this week branded “slow” and “lazy” in addressing discrimination faced by the Roma community, the continent’s largest transnational minority.

Back in April 2005, the EU’s only directly-elected institution, the European Parliament, called for a range of measures to improve the status of Roma, who are commonly referred to as gypsies. More than two-and-a-half years later, the Union’s executive, the European Commission, has still not come forward with the requested action plan for tackling the surrounding issues.

The Roma, estimated to be seven to nine million, a people believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century, were the focus of largely negative attention in the final months of last year. When a Roma man from Romania was accused in a murder and rape case in Italy in November, a wave of anti-gypsy sentiment led to an urgent decree being proclaimed that would allow collective expulsions from Italian territory.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled in November against a Czech practice of placing Roma in separate schools from those attended by most of the country’s children. Such schools have been blamed for offering a lower quality of education than their conventional counterparts.

And a report published by the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest earlier in the year found that anti-Roma discrimination in the labour market is “endemic and blatant” in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. Despite finding evidence that Roma have been systematically denied the possibility of filling job vacancies, the ERRC said that governments have not taken any visible steps to ensure that EU anti-discrimination law is respected.

“The European Commission has been slow and lazy (in addressing Roma issues),” Elly de Groen-Kouwenhoven, a Dutch member of the European Parliament (MEP), complained during a Jan. 16 debate. She urged that a permanent unit devoted to the Roma should be set up in the Commission to remedy this situation.

Vera Egenberger, director of the ERRC, said that the “neglect of the Roma being a European community has to stop.” She admitted, however, that tackling bias will be an arduous task, as the Italian episode has exemplified. “The political climate (in Italy) seems to be so bad that whatever is done, the Roma community seems to be blamed,” she told IPS.

Although MEPs have requested that the EU should formally confer the Roma with the status of a transnational grouping, taking that step is legally fraught. Theoretically, it would be possible if all EU countries accepted a convention on the status of minorities drawn up by the Council of Europe, a continent-wide body separate to the Union. Yet France, one of the Union’s largest states, has refused to ratify that convention.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, a member of the European Commission, rejected criticisms of her institution. While she recognised that it may have been slow, she insisted it had not been lazy, stating that it had begun legal proceedings against 22 of the EU’s 27 countries for not correctly implementing anti-discrimination rules.

Ferrero-Waldner also promised that a policy paper will be presented by the Commission during the summer that will focus on ameliorating problems encountered by Roma. She added that the EU executive is “determined to use all instruments” at its disposal, including legislation, financial aid, and awareness-raising campaigns.

Hungary’s Viktória Mohácsi, one of two Roma members in the 785-strong European Parliament, argued that discrimination is rampant in 10 EU member states.

“It is common practice to characterise Roma children as mentally disabled and to stigmatise them,” she said. “The life expectancy of Roma is 15 years below the European average. And Roma are overrepresented among the unemployed in each and every member state.”

Guillermo Ruiz, a policy officer with the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, observed that enforced segregation is not yet dealt with by EU anti-discrimination law. He advocated, too, that there should be an obligation to introduce “positive action” to increase the proportion of Roma in the workforce “in order to compensate for existing discrimination.”

Romanian Socialist MEP Adrian Severin recalled that the Nazis had rounded up Roma and sent them to extermination camps during the Second World War. “Today after Europe has reconciled with itself, should it reconcile with the Roma population as well?” he asked. “Or should it treat them as second-class citizens? The answer to that question is: the Roma issue is a European issue.”

Vittorio Agnoletto, an Italian left-wing deputy, said there is a “clear wave of racism and stigmatisation” in his country. In Milan, he added, children have been denied the right to go to school because their parents do not have papers that the authorities deem necessary to live in Italy.

His MEP compatriot Roberta Angelilli cited estimates that 45 percent of Roma are under 16 years of age. “In some member states, fewer than 60 percent of Roma go to school,” she said. “That means they will have no future other than needing welfare payments or working on the black market.”

 
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